Sleep paralysis is a disturbing but harmless phenomenon that results when a person is “stuck” in a hypnagogic or hypnopompic state. Hypnagogic refers to the transition between wakefulness and sleep, while hypnopompic refers to the transition between sleep and waking up. Most of the time, you pass through these phases of sleep quickly and without notice. However, under certain conditions a person’s brain may “wake up” before their body does, resulting in a state of consciousness that is accompanied by paralysis or near-paralysis of motor functions.
While in this state, the individual is highly vulnerable to experiencing hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations, which can present as aural, visual, or both simultaneously. These hallucinations coupled with the paralysis can be extremely frightening to the subject. Typical experiences describe chest pressure, an inability to breathe, hearing disturbing voices, and seeing a presence in the room. Because of the paralysis, the presence is often perceived to be sitting on the subject’s chest. In the past, because of people’s fear of “witches,” people often “saw” an old woman, from which the folk name for this phenomenon, Old Hag, derives. Sleep paralysis is a cause of many paranormal experiences such as ghost sightings, succubi/incubi visits, and alien abduction scenarios.
From the alt.dreams FAQ, maintained by Olaf Titz (firstname.lastname@example.org. sub.org):
“3.1. What causes sleep paralysis?
“A. Conventional wisdom: REM atonia is a normal function of the body. The muscles that move the body are “turned off” during REM sleep, which prevents you from acting out dreamed actions in reality. Non-REM sleep paralysis after waking up (“old hag”) is caused by a failure to re-activate the muscles immediately. Normally this condition lasts only a few seconds, but sometimes it can go for a minute, which causes a very scary feeling. You are damn sure you’re awake now but you can’t move. This is extremely unpleasant but at least not dangerous.”
Here is a typical Old Hag experience. This was posted on the USENET newsgroup alt.folklore.ghost-stories in the 1990s.
From: email@example.com (Penny)
“… I turned out the light and settled down to go to sleep. As I was lying in bed thinking, I became aware of a rustling sound emanating from the turret. I focused on the sound, trying to determine its origins. A breeze over papers? A mouse? As soon as I dismissed these possibilities the rustling sound stopped and was replaced by the sound of stealthy, shuffling footsteps that were headed in my direction. The sense of a presence was suddenly so strong that it filled the room. I was terrified. The critical detail here is that I clearly remember pulling the blanket over my head (I was lying on my back.) The next thing I knew I was paralyzed–I couldn’t move a finger. The footsteps continued their approach and the next thing I knew, a tremendous weight settled on my chest, forcing me into the mattress. I felt that there was a menacing presence. […] It was nasty! The intense, dreadful weight continued to press down on me, almost like a large animal settling itself on my body. I thought I would go through the mattress. I knew that I was awake, I was not dreaming, and that something evil was in the room with me. Somehow, my childhood years of Sunday School paid off and I prayed to be released. In that instant, it was over.”
Next time you read a book of true ghostly accounts, keep the old hag phenomenon in mind. Most likely you will find a few classic old hag experiences (especially by authors who are unaware of the phenomenon) which the victim assumed were paranormal.
An amusing incident from a reader:
I have been reading the stories at your site for a few weeks now and I will be posting my own very true very scary tale soon. But first I’d like to ad my own theory or explanation of “old hag”.
A female neighbor of mine would often complain to her husband that several nights a week she would awake with the sensation of being smothered. She claimed that it felt like someone laying across her body, at once pinning her down and forcing the air from her lungs. She said during these episodes she felt panicked and paralized. She was convinced that their bedroom was “haunted” Her husband finally grew tired of listening to her complaints and forced her to get a complete physical and mental check-up. Long story short…she actually suffered from Sleep Apnea. Her “old hag” was actually caused by her inability to breathe!
Her husband still thinks this is hilarious and anytime she says something that may be false he grumbles “ghost my ass, i bet it’s your damn deviated septum again”
The Old Hag phenomenon as astral projection:
Hey great page! This is regarding your “Old Hag” thing on your FAQ pages. I have an alternate explanation that while still classifies itself as “paranormal”, but actually has nothing to do with ghosts.
Many as I do believe that the experience of sleep paralyses is actually due to an Out Of Body Experience. Ever lay in your bed, on the edge of sleep, not thinking of anything, and suddenly have the sensation your falling, as if through your bed?! Realizing this you suddenly “catch” yourself, and jump up in your bed. I’ve had this feeling many times throughout my life.
There are those (myself included) who believe that this is the sensation of your soul or “astral body” leaving your physical body. At some point while on the edge of sleep, it’s believed that your physical body infact does fall asleep, however your consciousness or “astral body” actually doesn’t join you in sleep, but rather becomes disconnected from your physical body. There are those who claim to do this regularly, and can travel anywhere there hearts may desire, and that there is no actual “time” experience in this state. Many claim of being able to go to friends houses who live hundreds, possibly thousands of miles away and listening in on conversations that their friends may have with others, and later being able to describe these conversations to their friends that they could not possibly of heard! Other things similar to this are apparently possible.
Strange buzzing or “frying” sounds, and the feeling of a heavy weight upon the body are also associated with the entering of the OBE state, along with the feeling of being “pushed into and through the bed”. These strange sounds and feelings may explain the “Old Hag” experience.
As far as I know there is no danger of death, or not being able to return to your sleeping body. Infact it is said that you can return at any time you wish. If you experience this phenomenon, and are able to not “catch yourself”, you just might be able to experience an OBE. I however have never personally been able to keep from “catching” myself from the falling sensation. I suppose when your on the edge of sleep, your instincts act before your consciousness can interject.